The Nuclear Option

Why Nuclear Power is Now Safe

The cloud of public uncertainty regarding nuclear power has bled into the sector, and now governments are racing against the clock to increase its generation. Despite the recent repositioning of nuclear power as an efficient energy source, there are worries that it may be too little too late to really make an impact.  Although nuclear power, as it exists now, is not entirely renewable, its carbon footprint is much less severe. At the same time, despite what popular preconceptions may have you believe, it’s a whole lot safer too, with a death count even less than wind and hydropower. 

The Public Perception Issue

Ukraine, 1986 – the meltdown of Chernobyl led to the evacuation of 300,000 residents, and over 4000 estimated cancer cases. 

Japan, 2011 – a tsunami floods the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, leading to a meltdown and evacuations and an intense clean-up operation and over 2000 related deaths.

These events often come to mind when discussing nuclear energy, resulting in the sector being deemed by many as risky. But it is quickly emerging as one of the most cost effective and efficient methods to achieve NetZero targets. The perceptions of its safety are wrong. 

Where Are We Now?

Currently, nuclear power is responsible for 10% of the global electricity supply. Efforts are being made across various governments to increase this to accompany the move away from fossil fuels. After a rocky relationship with nuclear throughout the late 20th century and early 21st century, government sentiments are gradually warming as nuclear continues to present its benefits.

One of the largest motivators to switch to nuclear energy has been the recent surge in fossil fuel costs, as a result of greater pressure to stick to sustainability targets and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Countries around the world are now very eager to shift away from their previous reliance on fossil fuels and natural gas and turning to nuclear power appears to be what many are opting for. 

The US is currently the global leader in producing nuclear energy, with 92 reactors in operation producing 20% of the country’s electricity. If we take just one of these plants, Diablo Canyon in California, it alone could reduce the state’s carbon emissions by 10% from 2017 levels, as well as saving $2.6 billion in electricity costs. Scale this up from a state to an entire country, and there is potential to save hundreds of billions and significantly decarbonise energy production. 

In the UK, the government has pledged that a quarter of the country’s electricity will be generated from nuclear power. The government’s goal is to build one new nuclear power station each year until 2030. 

There are already two prominent reactors already in development – Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C – which together are expected to be responsible for 14% of the UK’s electricity. These reactors are European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs), which are currently considered the safest reactors. Not only do they use less uranium, their radioactive produce’s lifespan has decreased by one third, leading to less nuclear waste and moving perceptions away from images like Chernobyl’s ‘elephant’s foot’ being on our doorstep. 

Hinkley Point C, under construction

Nuclear Innovations

Nuclear energy and innovation go hand in hand, and that’s something that TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working towards. Founded in 2006, TerraForm is currently in the process of manufacturing a Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR), a type of nuclear reactor which greatly reduces the need for uranium enrichment and reprocessing. Sourcing uranium and the steps required to reprocess it has infamously kept nuclear power from being a true renewable energy source. TWRs could finally get nuclear power on par with its other renewable counterparts like solar and wind. TWRs are still in their conceptual stage, with none having been manufactured yet, but they are a promising sign of what nuclear energy could bring.

TerraPower’s Travelling Wave Reactor

Accelerating Change

Although nuclear power is becoming a more popular and competitive option for energy production, the sector still has a lot of slack to pick up. As it stands, more reactors are at risk of being decommissioned than are being built. All but one of the UK’s nuclear plants are set to be taken offline by 2030, a move that will reduce the entire country’s power by 35%. This isn’t just an issue in the UK either, overall there are hundreds of nuclear power plants across the globe that are being decommissioned. We must see a doubling down on efforts to replace these.

If governing bodies really want to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels, the shift to renewable energy has to come quickly. There is no time left for waiting. Governments have to get serious about increasing renewable energy production, and the world needs to see the evidence of that. Nuclear power can finally be positioned as a positive alternative to the fossil fuels that are destroying our planet. 

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